By Meteor Blades
I’ll not apologize for the smile brought to my lips by Augusto Pinochet’s death this week. He deserved a trial, but, obviously, his protectors were going to make sure he never got one, So, adiós sin compasión to the beast. His final hours were a good deal more comfortable than those of his thousands of victims. If I could afford the flight, I’d shit on his grave ... except that his family took his ashes home to their ranch to avoid such acts of desecration.
My grim glee has been tempered because another mass murderer enabled by U.S. machinations and complicity and money, a man still very much alive, may Pinochet himself out of the grasp of justice. His name is José Efraín Ríos Montt, retired general and president of Guatemala, graduate of the notorious School of the Americas, and right-wing evangelical Christian who counts Pat Robertson as a personal friend. In the 18 months he headed the country after a CIA-backed coup d’etat in 1982, Ríos Montt presided over at least five times as many killings as Pinochet, and, with other generals, rained terror onto hundreds of Mayan villages and towns. Ronald Reagan, the sainted Republican icon, helped him do it and publicly defended him for getting a “bum rap” at the same time Ríos Montt’s soldiers were tying people’s thumbs behind their backs, shooting them in the head and dumping them in mass graves across the Guatemalan highlands and elsewhere. All in the name of crushing a communist guerrilla insurgency that arose because U.S. ideologues couldn’t stand to see democracy in Guatemala.
Today, Ríos Montt has it much better than Pinochet in his final years. He roams free as head of one of the country’s largest political parties, the Guatemalan Republican Front, and came in third in the 2003 presidential election. The good news is that he might not be free that much longer.
As Patrick Daniels of the Guatemala Solidarity Network wrote in Thursday’s Guardian:
Just as in Chile, the fight for justice for the victims of Guatemalan state repression has been long and hard. And the significance of the Pinochet and Ríos Montt cases is not only in the judgment reached by the House of Lords or Spanish authorities; it's in the bravery of the people who've worked, often for years and at personal risk to themselves, collecting the evidence and testifying to establish cases that will stand up in court.
Living in Guatemala for many years, I learned how important it is to be able to support and accompany witnesses in the case against Ríos Montt. Press exposure of threats and intimidation can act as a vital deterrent, yet with many actors shunning the limelight for good reason, the human stories behind the headline-grabbing legal milestones all too often go untold. ...
Just as Pinochet did, Ríos Montt faces possible extradition to Spain. Perhaps, though, the parallels between the two men are about to end. Pinochet at 91 died before facing sentencing; Ríos Montt at 80 might yet face a judge and jury.
In October and November of 1982, two colleagues and I had been traveling through the provinces of Huehuetenango, Quiché and El Petén seeking eyewitnesses to the outrageous human rights abuses, including massacres, that the Guatemalan (and U.S.) government claimed were merely part of a disinformation campaign by backers of the pinko press and communist guerrilla armies. Almost nobody would speak to us. We were hampered by being outsiders and, though two of us were fluent in Spanish, none spoke a word of Mayan. Doing our investigation on the cheap, we usually made our way around on buses that were often stopped by the military. One day, in El Petén, a dozen armed men wearing black clothes and sunglasses, and riding in new Ford Broncos, blocked our bus and forced everyone off at gunpoint. I.D.s were scrutinized but they never showed theirs. They took away five Guatemalans, including a girl about 14. We never found out what happened to them.
In early December, we took the bone-bouncing drive from Guatemala City to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Ronald Reagan was making his last stop there after a five-day trip to Latin America. He would be meeting with Ríos Montt, and we hoped to ask both of them some pointed questions. But our unvetted alternative-media credentials weren’t good enough to get us past security. We did get the press copy in which Reagan infamously says that Ríos Montt is “a man of great personal integrity and commitment” ... who “wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”
In addition to praise for the general’s “progressive” efforts, “all that it can” turned out to include a lifting of the embargo on military goods imposed by President Jimmy Carter, something Reagan had been trying to do since practically his first day in office. Despite secret CIA memoranda noting that the Guatemalan military was killing innocents and reports by human rights group’s demonstrating that the generals were murderous thugs, Reagan authorized the sale of $6 million in military hardware a month after his Honduras visit.
Out of money and with little to show for our efforts, my colleagues and I returned to the States. Other researchers did a better job. In May 1983, America’s Watch published "Creating a Desolation and Calling it Peace," a scathing exposé of the slaughter and repression in Guatemala. Other reports followed.
In 1989, I was between jobs and back in Guatemala, this time by myself. In a few cases, haphazardly, with little or no effort to conserve forensics evidence, exhumations of clandestine graves were beginning to take place. In the little village of Tunajá, I watched as the first of eight such graves were exhumed. Though the bodies were in a terribly decayed state, five were still bound at the wrists and the backs of seven skulls were pierced with what appeared to be bullet holes. It was easily one of the worst days of my life.
Since then, there have been hundreds of exhumations carried out under the auspices of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, led by Fredy Peccerelli. You can read an interview with him at 'The Bones Tell the Story': Revealing History's Darker Days.
Like many of those who have been engaged in the past decade uncovering the truth of the war crimes committed under Ríos Montt, and during the entire 36-year period of the Guatemalan civil war, Peccerelli has been repeatedly threatened with murder. Several forensic workers, lawyers and citizens seeking the truth have been slain. But they have not surrendered. In the late ‘90s, Peccerelli and his small team could only recover about 10 bodies a year. Now, thanks to his courageous persistence as well as foreign money and technical assistance, the GFAF and its staff of 80 expects to have recovered 450 bodies by the end of this year, with plans for 1000 a year soon.
Even at this rate, the Washington Post reported last month, it could take a century to find remains of all the victims. Only 220 names have been attached to the bodies of 650 victims dug up so far at military bases. The others remain unidentified, stored in cardboard boxes at GFAF offices. Next year, Peccerelli hopes to identify more of them by gathering and comparing DNA samples from victims and their relatives.
As the continuing harassment and threats of violence prove, Ríos Montt isn’t the only one who would like to escape justice or, as in the case of right wingers here in the United States, downplay and sanitize America’s role in these atrocities or even praise the actions of the general just as many have recently praised Pinochet.
From the time of the 1954 CIA-engineered coup against Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala’s second freely elected president, the military – much of its notorious officer-corps trained at the School of the Americas – committed atrocities against anyone they deemed the enemy or a friend of the enemy or somebody who might someday be a friend of the enemy.
The Reagan Administration’s role in abetting these crimes cannot be stressed over much. Even before Ríos Montt added his particular flair to the ongoing slaughter, Reagan associates were meeting with Guatemala’s generals and giving them a wink and a nod. According to a State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981, Guatemalan leaders met with Reagan's roving ambassador, retired Gen. Vernon Walters, and left no doubt about their plans. Guatemala's military leader, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, "made clear that his government will continue as before – that the repression will continue. He reiterated his belief that the repression is working and that the guerrilla threat will be successfully routed."
If ending the guerrilla war that had been going on since 1960 meant killing a few thousand non-combatants, ignoring civil rights, engaging in extrajudicial executions, burning whole towns, raping women and forcing people out of their ancestral areas into strategically placed concrete villages, no problem. If it meant coercing male villagers to join “civil patrols” that would inevitably clash with the guerrillas and lead to some of the most egregious abuses, so be it.
The Administration could not plead ignorance. Human rights groups had been reporting on the situation since the late 1970s, which was one reason Jimmy Carter had pushed for the arms embargo. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for "thousands of illegal executions." [Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1981]
The Reagan Administration’s reactions to such reports was that “conscientious human rights and church organizations,” including Amnesty International, had been duped by the communists and “may not fully appreciate that they are being utilized."
Apparently confident of Reagan’s sympathies, the Guatemalan government continued its political repression without apology.
By July 1982, Ríos Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his "rifles and beans" policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would get "beans," while all others could expect to be the target of army "rifles."
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more accounts of the army conducting Indian massacres. On Oct, 21, 1982, one cable described how three embassy officers tried to check out some of these reports but ran into bad weather and canceled the inspection.
Still, this cable put the best possible spin on the situation. Though unable to check out the massacre reports, the embassy officials did "reach the conclusion that the army is completely up front about allowing us to check alleged massacre sites and to speak with whomever we wish."
Documents declassified in 1999 prove that the administration knew at the time that the Guatemalan military was engaged in a scorched-earth campaign against the Mayans. While Reagan was spouting his nonsense (and Jeane Kirkpatrick was toasting Argentina’s generals, themselves then engaged in a slaughter), the CIA was confirming that the Guatemala government was committing massacres. Ríos Montt had given the go-ahead to the “Archivos” intelligence unit to expand death squads that ultimately engaged in hundreds of assassinations. You can read some of those documents here, here and here.
In February 1983, the CIA reported in a secret secret cable that Ríos Montt had given the Archivos, the presidential intelligence service, a free hand. The cable noted that there had been a rise in "suspect right-wing violence," and a growing body count. The Agency reported that Ríos Montt "apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit." At the end of the cable, even the the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Frederic Chapin, said he believed the violence had been ordered and was directed by the Guatemalan government, a sharp turnaround from just a few months previously.
None of this analysis reached the American public for another 16 years when the secret stamp was removed from those documents.
It was the same year that Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH in its Spanish acronym) released its long-awaited report. It was withering.
82. Human rights violations and acts of violence attributable to actions by the State represent 93% of those registered by the CEH; they demonstrate that human rights violations caused by state repression were repeated, and that, although varying in intensity, were prolonged and continuous, being especially severe from 1978 to 1984, a period during which 91% of the violations documented by the CEH were committed. Eighty-five percent of all cases of human rights violations and acts of violence registered by the CEH are attributable to the Army, acting either alone or in collaboration with another force, and 18%, to the Civil Patrols, which were organised by the armed forces.
93. “Death squads” were also used; these were initially criminal groups made up of private individuals who enjoyed the tolerance and complicity of state authorities. The CEH has arrived at the well-founded presumption that, later, various actions committed by these groups were a consequence of decisions by the Army command, and that the composition of the death squads varied over time as members of the military were incorporated, until they became, in some cases, authentic clandestine military units. Their objective was to eliminate alleged members, allies or collaborators of the “subversives” using the help of civilians and lists prepared by military intelligence. The various names of the better known “death squads”, such as, MANO (National Organised Action Movement), also known as Mano Blanca (White Hand) because of its logo, NOA (New Anti-Communist Organisation), CADEG (Anti-Communist Council of Guatemala), Ojo por Ojo (Eye for an Eye) and Jaguar Justiciero (Jaguar of Justice) and ESA (Secret Anti-Communist Army), were simply the transient names of the clandestine military units whose purpose was to eliminate the alleged members, allies or collaborators of “subversion”.
95. Acts and omissions by the judicial branch, such as the systematic denial of habeas corpus, continuous interpretation of the law favourable to the authorities, indifference to the torture of detainees and limitations on the right to defence demonstrated the judges’ lack of independence. These constituted grave violations of the right to due process and serious breaches of the State’s duty to investigate, try and punish human rights violations. The few judges that kept their independence and did not relinquish the exercise of their tutelary functions, were victims of repressive acts, including murder and threats, especially during the 1980s.
96. The CEH concludes that the rights to life and due process of those citizens that the Government of Guatemala put on trial in the Courts of Special Jurisdiction, were also seriously violated, particularly in the numerous cases in which the death penalty was imposed.
105. The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the State. Evidence from different sources (declarations made by previous members of the armed forces, documentation, declassified documents, data from various organisations, testimonies of well-known Guatemalans) all coincide with the fact that the intelligence services of the Army, especially the G-2 and the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial), obtained information about all kinds of individuals and civic organisations, evaluated their behaviour in their respective fields of activity, prepared lists of those actions that were to be repressed for their supposedly subversive character and proceeded accordingly to capture, interrogate, torture, forcibly disappear or execute these individuals.
106. The responsibility for a large part of these violations, with respect to the chain of military command as well as the political and administrative responsibility, reaches the highest levels of the Army and successive governments.
110. After studying four selected geographical regions, (Maya-Q’anjob’al and Maya-Chuj, in Barillas, Nentón and San Mateo Ixtatán in North Huehuetenango; Maya-Ixil, in Nebaj, Cotzal and Chajul, Quiché; Maya-K’iche’ in Joyabaj, Zacualpa and Chiché, Quiché; and Maya-Achi in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz) the CEH is able to confirm that between 1981 and 1983 the Army identified groups of the Mayan population as the internal enemy, considering them to be an actual or potential support base for the guerrillas, with respect to material sustenance, a source of recruits and a place to hide their members. In this way, the Army, inspired by the National Security Doctrine, defined a concept of internal enemy that went beyond guerrilla sympathisers, combatants or militants to include civilians from specific ethnic groups.
A few hundred graves have been excavated, a few hundred belated funerals have taken place. A handful of Guatemala war criminals have been tried and convicted.
Justice may finally be in the works. Thanks to the Spain’s view that it has universal jurisdiction over war crimes, Spanish National Court Judge Santiago Pedraz ordered Ríos Montt’s arrest last July.
Last month, on Nov. 6, the Guatemalan judiciary ordered the arrest of six of the eight former military and government officials accused with burning the Spanish embassy in 1980 and for genocide. Two are being held on charges of terrorism, homicide and kidnapping. They all face possible extradition to Spain as a consequence of charges filed in 1999 in the Spanish courts by Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum and other victims Guatemalan victims.
Ríos Montt was not included because he was not involved in the burning of the embassy, and Spain has yet to issue a warrant on the charge of genocide. But that could come at any time.
General Ríos Montt is 80 now. Some will no doubt say that he is too old to prosecute. To leave this scab alone. To let the past be. But thousands of dead lie moldering because of the general and his colleagues. Torture, rape, murder, and ethnic cleansing were hallmarks of his regime and others that followed his. Guatemalans must live shoulder to shoulder with these who murdered their kin and neighbors every day. The families of those who were assassinated or dropped from helicopters in the ocean the same way the Argentine and Chilean generals dropped their victims cry out for redress.
We Americans, whose government enabled this wickedness with our tools, training and treasure, whose President praised this monster, should being crying out as well. One general managed to wait out the judges. We should not let another do the same. Justice is owed to both the living and dead of Guatemala.